THE BLOG
01/06/2015 05:39 pm ET Updated Mar 08, 2015

Living With Courage in a World of Bullies

The hacking of Sony Pictures, threats from North Korea about the release of The Interview, and the systematic abdication of the film by major theatre operators are vivid reminders about the impact that bullies can have on us. Like bullies in high school, unless we stand up to them, they will continue running amok, disrupting any normalcy around us in the interest of their own insecurity and/or assumed stature.

In this context, I was disappointed that both Sony and the theatre operators allowed themselves and free speech to be trampled by a dictator bully. Ultimately, buckling under both public and presidential pressure, Sony did the right thing by releasing the film and demonstrated (based on the positive popular response) that neither the dictator nor the bully has traction in America. At the end of the day, Americans choose to live with courage.

We live in a world of bullies. Internationally, Assad, ISIS, Putin, Boko Haram, Al Queda, and others perpetuate conflicts that run roughshod over the weak and the world. Domestically, political bullies trash "the opposition" while promoting themselves and their parties. About one-third of the American workforce is bullied. One hundred sixty thousand American students stay home from school every day, fearing bullies. Some police around the country continue to exhibit bully-like behavior, demonstrating brute power over protection. Bullies abound.

So we need courage more than ever. Not just collectively, but individually -- in our daily lives. Courage involves the notion that the greater good is bigger than just ourselves.

Eighth-grader Madison Wagner realized this when her classmate was tormented by bullies. She took a stand, stood up for another person, stopped the cycle of bullying, and lost her friends in the process. In a world of bullies, where all of us will be faced sometime in 2015 with a choice -- to stand up or lay down -- Madison's essay "Courage" provides an enlightening and inspiring example. Here it is:

Courage is a lonely road. I speak from experience based on a sad and nasty situation that I witnessed involving people that I believed were my friends. Showing courage is courageous in itself, especially at this point in my life. It's not always "cool" to treat everyone with respect, whether you personally get along or not. I was labeled as a "goody-goody" and a "liar" as the truth was distorted to protect the guilty. I learned that taking a stand to defend what is right involves risk and consequences.

It started with one girl that just about everyone decided was "unlikeable". Not everyone is compatible as friends, but these people couldn't leave it there. They made a sick game out of it and tortured her. The ring leader of the operation was the person that the victim would have least expected. It was someone she most admired and thought was her best friend. She referred to her as a "sister". Making it worse, and more shocking, was that many others joined in on the sick fun -- even the people that were tagged as "the nicest"! They made fun of her for the way she walked, talked, and looked. They spread sick rumors and called her unspeakable names. One day she was crying during recess and said she hated her life, school, and didn't want to be around anyone. This motivated the ring leader and her minions as they continued spreading rumors; they said she would commit suicide if it weren't for them as they faked their friendship to keep her alive. Tormented to a breaking point, the girl faked a stomachache to get out of class and away from the "hateful" crowd. It angered me to see her so hurt. I decided to confront the haters. It briefly crossed my mind that I would risk my friendship with them, but seconds later, I took action. People who easily treat others this way are not those I want as friends. However, I was alone. Others cared more about being "accepted" and "liked". Even people who witnessed everything supported the ring-leader and later went on to torment another girl.

Why would anyone want "to belong" to a group so controlling and disrespectful? These people are publicly rude to adults and peers, and find it laughable. They twist the truth to protect themselves and blame others. As a result of doing what I knew was right, I lost my friends. In the end, the girl I protected didn't even stand by me.

Having the courage to do what was right has made me a stronger person and an agent of change. I'm not afraid to speak up to those who discriminate against others, and I encourage everyone to do the same. Even after losing this group of friends I know in my heart I took the path of courage and that it's made me a better person; and though the consequences were tough, and sometimes lonely, I would do it again.

Madison's essay, written for the Maltz Museum "Stop the Hate" competition, applies to all of us living in the kind of world we have today. Our courage will enable us to recognize that the cause of goodness is where we ought to be building our momentum, not in petty squabbles, self-interest, or wanton disregard.

2014 was not an impressive year for courage. School districts continued their failure to deal systematically with bullying. Universities continued ignoring and covering-up sexual assaults. Politicians continued fighting each other. And America continued its discord with race, equality and opportunity.

In 2015, on the cusp of our presidential election year, courage can take us to being above party politics, putting employee good above profit to shareholders, demonstrating caring and responsibility to our neighbors, calling out cowardly domestic violence and sexual assaults, being true to our word, sharing success, valuing life, and exhibiting love. As Madison demonstrated, principled leadership can be a lonely road. But it's the example that America can set for the world and that Americans can set for each other.

Muszynski is Founder of Purple America, a national initiative of Values-in-Action Foundation to re-focus the American conversation to a civil, productive and respectful dialogue around our shared values. To see America's shared values and get involved, go to www.PurpleAmerica.us
Project Love is a school-based, character-development program of Values-in-Action Foundation. To see information about Project Love school programming, go to www.projectlove.org